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10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Malaysian Grand Prix

We're now at the crucial stage of the MotoGP season and, although the championship picture didn't alter much at Sepang, there were still plenty of intriguing stories to emerge from the weekend. Here's what we learned from the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend

Enea Bastianini, Ducati Team

Enea Bastianini, Ducati Team

Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The 2023 MotoGP title battle remains extremely close after the Malaysian Grand Prix, though the day belonged to Enea Bastianini. Having struggled all year with injury and form upon his step up to the factory Ducati squad, Bastianini bounced back emphatically with a dominant win at Sepang.

The result comes as he faces rumours of potentially losing his seat to Pramac’s Jorge Martin next year. Not even a tyre pressure rule breach could dampen Bastianini’s spirits, though it reignited the debate over this regulation.

Francesco Bagnaia, meanwhile, got the better of his title rival Martin in the grand prix after claiming a first pole since Barcelona, but could only convert this to third. With Martin struggling to fourth, the championship gap stands at just 14 points in Bagnaia’s favour with two rounds to go.

Elsewhere, there was more news at Honda as Luca Marini entered the frame – along with several others briefly – as favourite to replace Marc Marquez. Aprilia had to dump a clutch system it had been using after rival complaints, while manufacturer concessions aimed at pegging back Ducati and aiding the Japanese marques are in the works.

After another busy weekend to begin the final stage of the season, here are 10 things we learned from the 2023 Malaysian Grand Prix.

1. The Beast is back in town

Bastianini took his first win for over a year

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bastianini took his first win for over a year

The last time we saw Enea Bastianini on the top step of a MotoGP podium, he was decked in Gresini colours and was celebrating his fourth victory of the season.

By that point, his promotion to the factory Ducati squad had been confirmed. He’d beaten Jorge Martin to the seat, the Pramac rider struggling last year with Ducati’s aggressive 2022-spec engine – the same motor Francesco Bagnaia rather shrewdly ditched ahead of the campaign.

Bastianini was expected to be a big rival to Bagnaia in 2023 and fight for the championship. But a broken shoulder in a sprint crash ruled him out of five grands prix, while he sat out three more later in the year after suffering multiple fractures in a Turn 1 pile-up he instigated in Barcelona.

During the relatively little time he did have on the bike, he’d struggled with getting the Ducati to stop in the way that made him so fast in 2022. However, a breakthrough with the set-up of his bike’s engine braking, as well as the introduction of a thumb-operated rear brake, vaulted him up the field in Malaysia.

Coming through Q1, Bastianini was third at the end of qualifying and led every lap of the grand prix  after capitalising on Martin running wide at the first corner. He eventually won by over 1.5 seconds (though his lead was over 2s at one stage).

It was Bastianini at his “push like a bastard” self, and it was brilliant to see. Not only that, he admits it has sent “a little message” to Ducati management amid the possibility it could swap him with Martin next year.

2. Bagnaia loses tyre “joker”

Bagnaia fractionally extended his points lead but waves goodbye to his tyre

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bagnaia fractionally extended his points lead but waves goodbye to his tyre "joker"

Ahead of the Malaysian GP weekend, Bagnaia admitted he had a “joker” to play with in the championship battle. Up to that point, he was yet to receive any official warnings for running underneath the minimum tyre pressures set out by Michelin.

Title rival Martin had, in Thailand, with a second offence bringing a penalty of three seconds to his race time should Martin commit it again.

Bagnaia had eyed Qatar, with the night race’s lower temperatures, as the place to potentially deliberately break the rules – conceding it was “crazy” he could even consider this in the first place – but that will not now come to pass.

He was found to have ridden underneath the minimum front pressure in the grand prix for over 50% of the race, which gained him an official warning for it being a first offence. Now both title battlers are on a level pegging in this respect, opening the door to the possibility that the championship could be decided due to a penalty.

3. Tyre pressure rule reaching critical point as riders get angry

Espargaro has headed criticism of the tyre rules

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Espargaro has headed criticism of the tyre rules

Ever since the minimum tyre pressure rule started to be enforced from the British Grand Prix, no rider has liked it. Most believe the narrow window they have to play with from a starting pressure of 1.88 bar is dangerous, with the front wheel losing grip and locking when the pressure rises above 2 bar.

Furthermore, riders aren’t happy with the guesswork that has to take place when their technicians set their front pressures, because there is absolutely no way of knowing where you will find yourself in a race.

Martin, who got a warning for riding under the permitted limit in Thailand, was pretty frank in his assessment of the rule.

“It’s a pity that we cannot ride at our 100% because of this rule,” he said at the Malaysian GP.

“I don’t know how to say it, but I think this rule… they need to try to understand from our side and try to make it [the minimum front tyre pressure] lower because, at the end of the day we are not seeing real races. We are seeing technical races because, if my technician puts the wrong tyre pressure, then I cannot push and I cannot show my potential.”

Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro, who is so far the only rider to have broken the rule twice and has therefore been given a 3s penalty, admitted that he was having to be more conservative with his front pressures out of fear of further sanctions.

“Actually, yes, for sure - if not, I will get six seconds [penalty] and then 12,” he said when asked by Autosport if he has been starting with higher front tyre pressures to avoid penalties. “I hate this rule, it’s going to ruin this championship.”

He also noted that the riders are constantly discussing with Michelin and with MotoGP about getting the minimum pressure to be lowered slightly. But to no avail.

Five riders in Malaysia fell foul of the rule, including race winner Bastianini and third-placed Bagnaia.

4. Martin has his nose wiped by Bagnaia, but title situation still fine

Martin (l) was comprehensively beaten by Bagnaia at Sepang

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Martin (l) was comprehensively beaten by Bagnaia at Sepang

By all means, losing just a single point to your title rival is no disaster, with Bagnaia now leading Martin by 14 points instead of the 13 it was pre-weekend.

But there were some key moments in the Malaysian GP that featured Martin having his nose wiped by Bagnaia. The first was the latter’s pole lap in qualifying, his first since Barcelona, in which he posted a new circuit record just moments after Martin – who then crashed to qualify second – had done the same.

Martin got the better of Bagnaia in the sprint, the duo finishing second and third, but in the grand prix he was battered. While he did suffer with heat issues in his medium front tyre, Bagnaia beat him 6.9s to take third. But what stood out more was how the pair engaged.

When Martin tried to overtake Bagnaia at Turn 14 on lap three, he ran slightly wide and the factory Ducati runner wasted no time in swiping straight back. Then at Turn 5 on lap four, after Martin had tried and failed to overtake at Turn 4, Bagnaia swooped round the outside of him at the long right-hander, chopping his nose.

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Bagnaia felt this was an “important” moment. No doubt Martin will strike back harder in Qatar should the pair meet on track again, though for the time being he is calm in his weekend.

“We lost one point at the end of the weekend, which is not that much,” he said. “Sometimes I recover 15, so I’m confident that in the next races I can be fast. If there are some tracks that you can recover it’s Qatar and Valencia, because we are so tight and we can put a lot of riders between Pecco and me. For both sides, you can win and lose a lot of points. So, I’m confident and let’s try to recover and beat him in the next race.”

5. New names enter and leave Honda frame

Marini has emerged as favourite for a Honda ride

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Marini has emerged as favourite for a Honda ride

The saga over who will replace Marc Marquez at Honda next year continued into the Malaysian GP weekend.

Gresini’s Fabio Di Giannantonio emerged during the Thailand weekend as favourite to end up swapping places with Marquez. This is due to Honda insisting it doesn’t want to commit a rider to two years, to keep its options open for 2025 when the market opens up.

Then rumours emerged in the build-up to Sepang that Moto2 race winner Fermin Aldeguer has an offer from Honda. The 18-year-old told motogp.com in Malaysia that he has been in contact with Honda, but the HRC team boss Alberto Puig denied this and ruled him out.

In an interview with DAZN, he confirmed three contenders: Di Giannantonio, Pol Espargaro and Luca Marini.

Di Giannantonio noted during the weekend that there was nothing new to report on this front. Espargaro confirmed talks took place, but has elected to remain with KTM next year as a test rider. Marini remained coy on discussions, but hinted that they had taken place.

On Sunday, Autosport reported that talks between Marini and VR46 had advanced, with the VR46 rider seemingly the favourite now. Aldeguer is also in the frame to in turn take Marini's VR46 seat next year.

From Marini’s point of view, stepping out of Valentino Rossi’s shadow appeals to show that he is not in his seat because of his familial ties. And with a factory Ducati step unlikely any time in the next few years, spearheading development at Honda and taking a factory pay packet is understandable.

When asked about swapping the best bike on the grid for potentially the worst, Marini said: “I know that my package now is fantastic, the team is working very well, and Ducati is a fantastic bike performing well every time in every situation, every condition. But also, as a rider, I have dreams to achieve and to ride and work for a factory team is something really incredible, in my opinion. But it needs to be the correct project, the correct situation.”

6. Oliveira holds no grudge about Honda’s approach

Oliveira understands why Honda only offered a one-year deal

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Oliveira understands why Honda only offered a one-year deal

Former Honda favourite Miguel Oliveira opened up over the Malaysian GP weekend about his decision to remain with RNF Aprilia next season. It’s known that Honda only wanted to offer him a one-year deal and he needed two to make taking the risk worthwhile, especially with both factory Aprilia seats up for grabs in 2025. 

Of all the candidates put forward, Oliveira was arguably the best. A five-time grand prix winner, the Portuguese has raced in the premier class since 2019 and would bring with him knowledge of the KTM and the Aprilia. But he says he wasn’t disappointed that Honda elected only to offer him a one-year deal, noting that it was merely “business”.

“It’s a business, they look for opportunities, so do we,” he said when Autosport asked if he was upset by Honda’s approach to him. “Sometimes our expectations maybe don’t match what is offered. So, I’m not disappointed, no.”

He added: “Even being the biggest manufacturer in the world with all the economic and most likely also human ability to build up a bike and make a strong team, I’d say as a rider that is breaking a relationship with one manufacturer to go to another without this guarantee of the future, I think it’s quite difficult.”

7. Aprilia's clutch is banned

More misery for the Aprilia riders at Sepang

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

More misery for the Aprilia riders at Sepang

Aprilia’s overseas adventure in this 2023 MotoGP season has been a very mixed bag. In Thailand, Maverick Vinales was forced to retire due to overwhelming heat radiating from his bike. Aleix Espargaro later said the heat he experienced made him feel like he was “going to die”.

It emerged in Malaysia, however, that the heat problems of Thailand formed part two of a double gut punch to the Italian brand.

From the Australian GP, it was forced to withdraw a clutch system it had been using in the races prior to improve its starts. This was due to a protest by a rival manufacturer – thought to be KTM – which felt the system Aprilia was using contravened the regulations.

The clutch system was initially given the green light from MotoGP’s technical direction, but it appears it falls into a grey area in the rules. Both Vinales and Espargaro confirmed at Sepang that the clutch had been removed, but weren’t allowed to say much more.

A tough weekend in Malaysia ended with Espargaro crashing out of the grand prix, while Vinales was a distant 11th.

8. Quartararo’s patience to be tested in vital Valencia test

Yamaha is being cautious on engine improvements

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Yamaha is being cautious on engine improvements

With a championship still to decide and three rounds remaining at the point the paddock reconvened on Thursday in Malaysia, most eyes seem to be on the post-race test in Valencia on 28 November. Chiefly, this is because of Marc Marquez’s first ride on the Ducati, as well as Pedro Acosta’s public MotoGP debut.

After a lukewarm reception to the first test of its 2024 engine at Misano in September, the Valencia test was also seen as an important moment for Yamaha and Fabio Quartararo. Having hoped for much more from the engine he tried at Misano, Quartararo has been told to lower his expectations for Valencia.

“At the moment, I have not talked to them yet,” he said when asked about what he was hoping to see from the engine at the Valencia test on Thursday, ahead of the Malaysian GP.

“They told me not to expect a big change for Valencia. But normally the big step will be here [Sepang] in February. So, Valencia I don’t know what to expect and if we will have something new.”

This isn’t necessarily to say he won’t have a new engine to try. Yamaha did confirm it has two more specifications to trial before the start of the 2024 season. But, with Quartararo to decide his future likely in the early months of next year, this won’t do anything to clear his mind.

9. Concessions set to make comeback in 2024

Honda riders could get a boost next season

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Honda riders could get a boost next season

It has been discussed for some time this season already amid the ongoing struggles for Yamaha and Honda in MotoGP. But the step towards returning concessions began at the Malaysian GP.

On Friday, Dorna sporting director Carlos Ezpeleta made the first proposal to the five MotoGP manufacturers about what the concession blueprint will look like. Ducati, being the constructors’ champion and MotoGP’s dominator right now, will be hit the hardest.

It will see a reduction in the amount of tyres it can use across testing and races, from 200 units per rider to 170. It will face tighter restrictions on testing (which the tyre reduction will have a hand in), the number of engines it can use per season (which is to be determined) and will not be able to field any wildcards.

The level of restrictions will operate on a sliding scale basis throughout the 2023 constructors’ order, with Yamaha and Honda set to benefit the most in a bid to help them return to the front of the pack.

It is hoped the framework can be made official before the end of the season. Ducati accepts the current proposal, but KTM and Aprilia want tougher restrictions placed on its Italian rival – chiefly reducing the tyres allowed to 140, which is something Ducati opposes.

10. Bautista’s comeback hindered by secret physical issues

Bautista admitted he was hampered by injury

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bautista admitted he was hampered by injury

Reigning double World Superbike champion Alvaro Bautista was quick to pour cold water on suggestions he could have a wildcard weekend in Malaysia like that of Dani Pedrosa in Misano, where the KTM rider was fourth in the sprint and grand prix.

Bautista has been the king of Superbikes for Ducati in recent years, but hasn’t raced a MotoGP bike since Valencia 2018 – when he was with the Aspar Ducati squad – and last tested the GP23 in August. Qualifying just under two seconds off the pace in 22nd, Bautista was 22nd in the sprint and 17th in the grand prix.

It was somewhat underwhelming, if not totally unexpected given his lack of MotoGP seat time over the past five years. However, he concealed all weekend that he had been struggling for power in the left side of his body, having whacked his vertebrae in a Superbike testing crash at Jerez recently.

“I have to confess that I had a problem all weekend but I didn’t want to accept it - I told it to my team yesterday afternoon, after the race,” Bautista revealed. “In the Jerez test, after the last race [of the WSBK season], I had a very ugly crash. I crashed with my head and had some pain in my neck, but no more problems and the mobility was good.

“Then I came here and, from Friday, I started to feel no power in the left, and especially in the left corners. I worked a lot with [MotoGP medical partner] Quiron health, but it was every time a bit worse and worse. For sure I didn’t ride as I wanted, and I’m so angry with myself because I cannot enjoy and I cannot push really good.

“In fact, my team watching the data from Friday always told me that I was really good on the first braking, in the right corners, but in the left braking I was losing almost one second. ‘But why?’ I told them maybe confidence, but the reality is that I couldn’t push.

“With this bike, you really have to force it on the braking, and I lose some power there. I am a bit frustrated with this, not with the result but because I cannot ride like my maximum.”

Bautista was more fed up with his performance than the result

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bautista was more fed up with his performance than the result

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